Lenten Penance Service

Song: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;

We see this wide and great mercy in action in the Gospel we just heard. I see the Lord putting into practice what he Himself taught in the parable of the two sons. He loves and welcomes both the outwardly sinful prodigal son and also the self-righteous angry son. Jesus is love incarnate and He offers that Love to both the woman caught in adultery and those who would condemn her to death.
These scribes and Pharisees are described by the Gospel writer John in his use of verbs of power, control, and dominance. She is “caught, brought and made to stand.” So often a human tendency is to find people in their sin and hold them there. In our Pharisaic tendencies, we can do the same. Put people in boxes. We do not see alternative possibilities. We remember their mistakes.
We always see them through a certain lens. Someone does not live up to our expectations. The guy who drinks too much. Pregnant teen. Certain assumption we make that the person is bad or a loser or weak or a person who cannot live up to their potential.
We have a choice. We can hold them or release them. Holding them causes people to hide.
My first year seminary theology professor John Shea wrote about this hiding with a wonderful quote: “We hide our sins because we know that if they are not hidden, they will be held [against us]. Skeletons are kept in the closet because we know other people will hang them on the porch. Then, the only access to our house will be through the dead bones of our mistakes.” Powerful statement of holding other people in judgement or also ourselves.
I learned a lesson early in my priesthood when I was teaching high schoolers. One of the more honest girls once said to me: Fr. Pete, why do you always give me the “you are a sinner look?” That caused me to do some self-reflection and conversion. In the Gospel, the Scribes and Pharisees stare at the woman. Staring is a tool of self-righteousness. It is intimidation and it is the look that you are dirt, a lowlife. They are keeping this woman in her place and not letting her get out of it. In contrast, Jesus does not stare at woman nor does he stare at them. He shows them that deep inside themselves, there is the truth. And this truth will set them and her free to change. All of them drop their stones and walk away. They are not this woman’s judges but her brothers. They sin and she sins and we all sin.
Jesus shows them the contradiction in their self-image. They do not want to see the truth of their own brokenness. They are just as in need of compassion and forgiveness. What Jesus mirrors to the woman is her deeper and truer self.
I think that Jesus has compassion on her accusers too. In my own human way of observing this scene, I could easily turn on them and judge them right back for being judgmental and self-righteous and prideful. Jesus challenged them, and he did it out of love. Jesus gives people the space to be who they are. Jesus invites all to conversion.
When the woman and Jesus are alone, Jesus recognizes her error, but he does not condemn her. He sets her free to walk away and be new. We do not know if she changes, but we hope she does not persist in this sin.
The story teaches us not to hold onto past mistakes but to future possibilities. God does something new. He moves us out of dead space.
Tonight, we have a choice to let our sins go and abandon ourselves to God’s love and mercy or not. We have a chance to change even if it does not seem that we are changing. Even a little bit of progress and perseverance is a good thing.
The sacrament of reconciliation is an encounter with the same Jesus who set the sinful woman free and who looks on you in love and wants to set you too free from hiding in your sin. He wants to give you a new start.

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